Religious Freedom & Political Flourishing: A Panel Discussion
Date: December 8th, 2013

Can religious liberty trailblaze a pathway towards greater political liberalization in autocratic countries?  Is religious freedom a necessary condition for democratic societies?  And how does religious liberty orginate and sustain itself in regimes around the world?  Are other freedoms necessary to sustain the rights of conscience?  These were questions that were posed to an esteemed panel of four scholars assembled by the Religious Freedom Project of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University in early October.  Moderated by Timothy Shah (Religious Freedom Project), the panelists include — in order of appearance — Dan Philpott (RFP and Notre Dame), Nukhet Sandal (Ohio U), Ani Sarkissian (Michigan State), and Tony Gill (U of Washington).

Prior to assembling the panel, Timothy Shah mailed all four discussants a set of questions as follows:

  1. Is it possible to have a polity that is liberal and democratic in most respects bu that also suppresses religious freedom?
  2. Does the presence of robust religious freedom promote political freedom, limited government, and democracy?  If so, what specific elements of religious freedom ar most crucial for promoting political freedom and vibrant democracy?
  3. Are there wasy in which religious freedom helps to promote transitions from authoritarianism to democracy?
  4. Are there context or regions important for American national security and global stability that illustrate the causal linkages between religious freedom, on the one hand, and political freedom and democratization, on the other?

All four panelists were given about 10 minutes to respond to any and all of these questions using any region of the world and historical era that they chose.  This was then followed up by further questions by the moderator, Tim Shah, and several questions from the audience.  Recorded: October 10, 2013 at Georgetown University.


The panel discussion in video format available at YouTube.

Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs (Georgetown University).

Timothy Shah’s bio at Religious Freedom Project.

Dan Philpott’s bio at Religious Freedom Project and Notre Dame (Political Science).

Nukhet Sandal’s bio at Religious Freedom Project at Ohio University (Political Science).

Ani Sarkissian’s bio at Religious Freedom Project and Michigan State (Political Science).

Tony Gill’s bio at Religious Freedom Project and U of Washington (Political Science).

God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics, by Monica Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Shah.

Religious Freedom, Why Now? Defending an Embattled Human Right, by Timothy Shah and Matthew Franck.

Religion in International Relations Theory: Interactions and Possibilities, by Nukhet Sandal and Jonathan Fox.

Religion as an Issue in Politics, by Nukhet Sandal.

The Political Origins of Religious Liberty, by Anthony Gill.

(Ani Sarkissian has a forthcoming book.  Stay tuned for details.)


Timothy Shah on the Case for Religious Freedom.

Ani Sarkissian on Religious Liberty in the Post-Soviet World.

Daniel Philpott on Religious Resurgence and Democratization.

Anthony Gill on the Political Origins of Religious Liberty.

William Inboden on Religious Liberty, Foreign Policy, and the Arab Spring.

Thomas Farr on Religion, Religious Liberty, and US Diplomacy.

Robert Woodberry on Missionaries and Democracy.

Allen Hertzke on Religious Liberty.

Joel Fetzer on Confucianism and Democracy.

Jonathan Fox on Religion and State around the World.

3 Responses to “Religious Freedom & Political Flourishing: A Panel Discussion”

  1. Ned McFarland says:

    A few times the panel or audience members put forward the idea that religious freedom limits the state by setting God above it, and is thus the root of further freedoms. I’d like to offer a counter-notion: it is not the divine, but the protection of conscience that limits the state.

    Yes, the atheist regimes of the 20th century were totalitarian. But, they by no means offered freedom of thought: you had to know (or at least spout) correct Marxism-Leninism or quote from Mao’s little red book to get anywhere. And surely history is full of examples of the state determining the nature of the divine and persecuting those who disagreed. Whether a regime takes one view of God or of materialism to be the party line, it does not result in a free state.

    By putting freedom of conscience at the center, though, we draw a line and say, “This the state can not control.” This brings with it the other fundamental freedoms — most people seem to agree that it is more or less useless to believe as one wants without being able to speak about it, or to gather with the like-minded, etc. But just as people disagree over what is right, they also disagree over what else is necessary to live out that belief. The question, then, is what exactly those other freedoms are that are necessary for a free conscience.

  2. tonygill says:

    Good points, Ned. I tried to build a case for religious liberty that could appeal to non-believers based not upon “natural law,” but upon the grounds of personal autonomy and economic efficiency.

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